By Tony Jones

NASHVILLE, TN — The Tennessee General Assembly has formed a six-member bi-partisan joint committee charged with investigating why Tennessee State University (TSU) has never received its full federal grant match funding from the State of Tennessee that should have been allocated under the Land Grant laws that created the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Named the Land Grant Institution Funding History Study Committee, the fact-finding group’s second meeting will be Tuesday, Dec. 8th at noon.  It will be live-streamed on the legislature’s website.  The hour long first meeting was live-streamed on Tuesday, Nov. 10th.   

Comprised of: Co-Chairs Rep. Harold M. Love Jr., (D-58) and Sen. Richard Briggs (R-7); and committee members Rep. Gary Hicks (R-9, Rep. Chris Todd (R-73); Senate Members Sen. Janice Bowling (R-16), Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-19); a June 2021 deadline has been set to reach their goal of identifying the steps that will have to be taken to correct the back-debt owed to TSU according to federal guidelines.

Tens of millions of dollars are at stake.  Perhaps even a hundred million or more, as the  committee members have to winnow through policy twists and turns to find out what TSU is rightfully due from decades of neglect. 

“This committee was formed this summer as we were preparing to close out the budget session for the 2021 funding year,” Co-Chair Love explained on a follow-up call after the meeting. 

“It derived from several conversations I had with Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-25) about what I knew to be the history of underfunding for TSU pertaining to their Land Grant Funding.  My hopeful goal is that we will be able to figure out the actual amount of money that the state should have been appropriated to TSU from 1955 to 2016, and that we are able to put together a plan to figure out how to distribute that money once we figure out how much is owed. Our job is to find the disparity.” 

According to its website, TSU was founded in 1909 as the Agricultural and Industrial Normal School.  After several accreditation growth steps, it achieved full land-grant university status in August 1958, and was renamed Tennessee State University in the 1960s. Following a merger with UT Nashville, the 32-year lawsuit Geier v. Tennessee finally resulted in a mediated consent decree that was ordered by the court on January 4, 2001. 

Federal grants under the Land Grant stipulations were to be matched by the state, but seldom, if ever, were carried through. If the state does not provide the match the federal government will rescind its commitment, leaving a gaping hole in operating funds.

“The fact that TSU is where it is now is nothing short of amazing,” Love feels. “Prior to the TBR (Tennessee Board of Regents) being created, the teachers and the staff had to hold a banquet for the legislature on their campus. They had to entertain the assembly just to get their funding,” he said, emphasizing a committee statement that fellow land grant recipient the University of Tennessee regularly received its full match like clockwork. 

“Rep. Hicks hit it on the head…‘When did it happen?’” said Love, referring to the history of the non-appropriation. “When we have (procedural) checks that don’t get checked it becomes disappointing. There are so many components.” 

For example, “The Secretary of State has to submit a report to the Secretary of the Interior asking how land grants are going to be funded. We’re going to have college presidents come in and speak to us about the funding and how it has benefited them over the years. There were years when TSU had to request a waiver from the federal government and pull the money out of their general fund to even make the waiver amount match to keep the federal funds. Imagine $32 million has been allocated to the university. But then the federal amount that comes down is $4 million, but they have zero from the state. They have to take that $4 million out of their general fund allotment just to make the match to receive the federal money. Just ten years of that and you have $40 million that could have gone into something else.” 

The committee brought in Brittney L. Mosby, Executive Director of HBCU Success for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, to help decipher the bureaucratic maze they have to decipher. Sen. Bowling brought up an issue that may be top of mind for many when she asked were the funds in question from the highly publicized meeting outgoing President Trump had allocated to HBCUs. 

An HBCU graduate from Spelman, Mosby detailed, “That money is under the Higher Education Act-Part F. It makes permanent about $85 million in funding for specific STEM initiatives at HBCUs but also other minority serving institutions, so I believe that about $50 million goes directly to all 101 HBCUs across the country, but that is under that particular title of the Higher Education Act.” 

Sen. Bowling was also concerned due to TSU’s direct impact in her district, clarified by Love on the follow up call. 

“TSU has a nursery for forestry products in her district so she understands what this committee can do for this institution that has a satellite in her district.” 

He further explained, “TSU has Extension Agents in 50 of our 95 counties in Tennessee. They do work with our small farmers to help them increase productivity, engage with students to give them an idea of what having a career in agriculture could be, show how to reduce health disparities, so much that you wouldn’t know they do unless you did a deep dive into their agricultural department.” 

The college has always been a part of his own life. A TSU alumni and legate, he said, “My father served in the General Assembly from 1968 to 1994. Tennessee State was in his legislative district. My mother worked there for 57 years. But I’ve learned even more about TSU since we’ve started working on this Land Grant issue. I hope that through this process we will become a model for all of the other states out there. This will benefit all of our citizens because as TSU and UT grows it benefits all of our farmers and everyone throughout the state.” 

Sen. Gilmore summed up their mission with a wry statement. “It’s like my mother said. Now that you know better, you do better.”